Tag Archives: Scotland

Seeing the whale before it dives

 

The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.

Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.

 

The exterior and interior of the parish church of St Monans, photographed in 1992.

 

The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.

Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.

The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.

Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.

The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.

Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.

Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.

 

Reference :   Rush, Christopher (2007)   Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered   London:Profile

 

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An earlier People’s Poet

 

Once upon a time, long before Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate or Kate Tempest earned nominations for the Mercury Prize, Liz Lochhead was a young and modern and successful female poet. Her career progressed to the point where, to date, she has published nine volumes of poetry and many other writings, and was appointed as the second Scottish makar or national poet in 2011. She was always more part of a literary tradition than a performer tradition, so that may be why she has sometimes been an overlooked part of her country’s cultural life.

Her first volume Memo for Spring in 1972 introduced many of the characteristics of Lochhead poems which have remained fairly constant. A conversational, free verse style, using word play, alliteration and assonance, but only an occasional use of rhyme. Also a keen eye for the details of behaviour and relationships and fashion and place. As shown in the primary-school-age farmyard terror of “Revelation”, the more grown-up perspective of “For my Grandmother Knitting”; in “Box Room” , dealing with your boyfriend’s family, and “How Have I Been?”, coping with the break-up. If you were looking for influences from earlier poets, you might detect hints of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

The Grimm Sisters in 1981 introduced a new creative line, a feminist revision of fairy-tales and legends, nearly 20 years before Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. For example, in “The Storyteller”, “Three Twists” about Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast and several poems about “hags” and “furies”; the narrative of “Tam Lin’s Lady” and the Scots language of “The Beltane Bride” looked forward to how she might combine both in the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off.

Lochhead wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in her first theatre play Blood and Ice. This was explored further in the next poetry collection Dreaming Frankenstein, with the title poem and “What the Creature Said”. “The Legend of the Sword & the Stone” draws on Arthurian imagery to depict sexual relations. “Fetch on the First of January” uses the Scots language again in a ghost story which recalls Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”.

Dreaming Frankenstein also includes some poems about North America. For example, “Fourth of July Fireworks” hints at “The Waste Land” and The Great Gatsby. “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” – subtle and engaging observation about life in the Greek area of Toronto – is set during December so vividly reminds me of my own winter work stay in the city around the same time.

Lochhead came to prominence at a time when arts organisations were keen to enlarge the audience for poetry through readings and book festivals. She was always a regular public reader, often alongside other central Scotland writers like Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alan Spence. After I heard her read aloud, her poetry on the page always retained that distinctive tone and pace and rhythm.

She ventured from readings into revue and early versions of what we later called “rap” – anticipating Kate Tempest, who nowadays enjoys a status in both literature and popular music. “Vymura: the Shade Card Poem” and “The Suzanne Valadon Story” draw on Lochhead’s visual arts background, while she produced a number of broader feminist satires like “Men Talk” and “Page Three Dollies”.

One work whose future reputation seems most secure is the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off, first produced in 1987. It is studied currently in Scottish schools, was one of the few older plays to be revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and is accessible and engaging as well as literary and continually relevant.

Much of the richness of Lochhead’s ideas and writing seems to stem from her awareness of her identity as a middle-class educated metropolitan child of working-class parents, and from a wish to blend always these two parts of her life together. One example is the undogmatic and affectionate homage she pays to her family background and early schooling in what she once described as “a wee bilingual poem”: “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”.

The present-day media gives a lot of attention to individuals whom they perceive as cultural and political role models for women and for people from ethnic minorities or from unprivileged backgrounds – often applying the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see ”. To Liz Lochhead’s generation of Scots, even if we’re not female: a large part of our life is documented here.

 

References :      Lochhead, Liz  (1984)   Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems    Edinburgh: Polygon
Lochhead, Liz  (2003 ed)  True Confessions and New Clichés      Edinburgh: Polygon

 

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The art in history

 

For the past four years the organisation 14-18 NOW  has been commissioning arts projects around the UK to mark the centenary of World War One. Certainly not all have been afforded equal attention – the national media have given most publicity to the ceramic poppies installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Tom Piper and Paul Cummins and the film They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson – but many of us tend to see any increased public and private funding of the arts as, in general, a good thing.

It was therefore quite stimulating to hear one serious dissenting voice, that of journalist and author Simon Jenkins. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron allocated £50 million to the work of 14-18 NOW to commemorate World War One, he observed acerbically, while at the same time as he was encouraging the country to join a present-day war in Syria. “125 artists rallied to the cause,” he said – his use of the vocabulary of military recruitment almost certainly not accidental. Jenkins’ main argument on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze was that large government-sanctioned arts and cultural events to mark historical anniversaries were becoming too common and were “synthetic” and even “slightly obscene”. Historians rather than artistes were more skilled in the delicate tasks of remembering and forgetting which constituted the true process of recording history. Of course, Jenkins’ position is a generalisation: not all writers of history books are equally rigorous and incisive and analytical, while many creative artistes certainly display those qualities. Governments are usually most comfortable with artistes who seem to fit a familiar stereotype.

Danny Boyle is certainly a well-known and successful film director, and already establishment-approved for his 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony show. He was the leader of the most recent 14-18 NOW project, Pages of the Sea, in which faces of war veterans were drawn on the sand of many UK beaches.

One of the beaches selected was at Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Here are some photographs of the Ayr event, co-directed by the National Theatre of Scotland. The principal “official” sand drawing was of one Walter Tull, but members of the public were encouraged to draw and identify their own family members.

 

 

 

The incoming tide eventually erased the pictures as people gathered to read in unison a new Carol Ann Duffy poem “The Wound in Time”.

 

As the Poet Laureate during the past nine years, Carol Ann Duffy is also an establishment figure but one who has displayed a wide range of literary and other skills. “The Wound in Time” is her second World War One commemoration poem, after “Last Post” in 2009.

Both borrow gently from Wilfred Owen in creating powerful new ideas. “Last Post”, which has the more straightforward structure and so reads more crisply and clearly, yearns for the power to erase the gas attack which Owen described so vividly in “Dulce et Decorum Est”, and to return its soldiers to the pre-war life of health, home, work and happiness. In the denser “The Wound in Time”, the repetition of the sounds of the present participle “-ing” and the sibilant “s” simulate waves on the beach: not only do they fail to clean the horrible bloody events from history, they serve as a reminder that human beings’ violent warlike behaviour continues incessantly.

 

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From the Arts Guild to the National Theatre and Hollywood

 

Bill Bryden has had a distinguished career as a theatre and film director. He was born and brought up in my own home town of Greenock, down the river from Glasgow. As I developed an interest in theatre during the 1970s and 1980s, one significant prompt was that a fellow Greenockian was one of its leading lights, first the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and then one of the directors of the glamorous new National Theatre in London.

Over the years, I read a fair amount about Bryden’s career in the media and saw some of his work. However much more rich detail has come from the unexpected source of the website of the British Library.  An interview between Bryden and Harriett Devine, recorded in 2009, is designated as part of a series on “The Legacy of the Royal Court” – Bryden worked at the famous London theatre of new writing in the 1960s before going to the Royal Lyceum – but in fact it covers all parts of his life and career over six hours’ conversation.

For me the interview is most illuminating in explaining how Bryden got started in his career as a theatre director, and it certainly sounds like one of those stories which seemed to happen quite often in that post-war period but couldn’t really happen now.

I always knew that Bryden, born in 1942, had discovered his initial interest in theatre through amateur drama, which was still strong in Greenock during my own youth. He started acting at school and performed at the town’s Arts Guild Theatre, which, twenty years later, I regularly visited myself. In one part of the conversation, he specifically identifies the value of early access to a proper well-equipped theatre like the Arts Guild, providing opportunities to develop skills in direction and stage management which served him well later.

 

The view of the River Clyde and Greenock, looking east from the Lyle Hill above the town.

 

The façade of the Arts Guild Theatre in Greenock which closed in 2012, to be replaced by the new Beacon Arts Centre.

 

After leaving school he actually worked briefly in a non-arts job, with the local council as a public health inspector, but the next important career step came soon afterwards, when he went to a theatre masterclass at the Edinburgh Festival  run by the new Royal Shakespeare Company director Peter Hall. Hall invited him to come to Stratford to observe and help (only in a small way – but he was paid at least some living expenses, it seems!) the production of the Shakespeare history plays which became the famous Wars of the Roses. Bryden suggests that his case was strengthened because the maverick left-wing Joan Littlewood  was originally scheduled to direct at Stratford at this time and it was felt she would tolerate a Scottish working-class boy to assist her in preference to any Oxbridge graduates.

Bryden, now about 20, returned to Scotland and got a job with Scottish Television, the new company which was part of the emerging commercial television network. He had devised the idea for an arts programme and this seems to have led to him writing and producing arts items which were successfully broadcast in daily news programmes. He also worked with the veteran documentary film-maker John Grierson (the man who is credited with inventing the term “documentary” and who had worked on the great film Night Mail ) on his series This Wonderful World.

Although primarily interested in the theatre, Bryden had not actually staged a play since his youthful amateur days. Now, helped by Scottish TV, he applied for one of the director apprenticeships which the TV companies were funding at that time. He was accepted by the Belgrade Theatre Coventry for a year and then moved to the Royal Court Theatre in London. A few years further on, he travelled back to Scotland to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, which is when I first read about him.

The Bryden productions I have seen in the theatre come from different stages of his career. First was his own play Civilians set in Greenock during World War Two for the forgotten Scottish Theatre Company. Then his brilliant National Theatre  production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which came to Glasgow in 1983: it included many of his illustrious company of that period like Jack Shepherd, James Grant and Karl Johnson, plus Paul Scofield as Oberon and Susan Fleetwood as Titania. In 1990, as part of Glasgow’s European Capital of Culture programme, he staged his own play The Ship in what he once described as “an industrial cathedral”, a former ship-building shed, employing a big ensemble cast as he had done at the National Theatre, and telling another story of the past days of Clydeside shipbuilding. Ten years later he brought to Glasgow a National Theatre production which had a similar maritime background, a Dutch play from the early 20th century called The Good Hope.

Bryden describes himself as “a director who writes a bit”. His first play, Willie Rough, set on Clydeside during World War One was performed in the early 1970s at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, during one of those times, as he puts it, when there was talk about a national Scottish theatre. He suggests the play might be revived by the new National Theatre of Scotland. This hasn’t happened yet. Even more unfortunate, the TV version of the play seems to have been lost or neglected by the BBC. After Willie Rough, Bryden wrote Benny Lynch, about the 1930s Scottish boxer. In the 2009 interview, he says he is currently working on a screenplay because he hopes that it will soon be filmed due to the interest of the actor James McAvoy, fresh from the success of Atonement. That also has failed to take place, and, as the internet records, it is not the first false dawn for the play.

Bryden loved the cinema from an early age, especially Westerns. Later, he wrote a film script about the James-Younger outlaw gang called The Long Riders. That this was successfully made and released has usually been attributed to the fact that Stacy Keach (who co-produced and plays Frank James) had worked earlier at the National Theatre with Bryden. The film was directed by Walter Hill and with music by Ry Cooder and gained further media attention at the time through its device of casting three sets of acting brothers to play three sets of historical outlaw brothers. It was one of the last films screened in Greenock’s Gaumont cinema before it closed in 1980: the early showing of such a commercially risky film was unusual for the venue and I often wondered whether either Bryden was directly involved in that decision or that a member of the cinema staff was paying discreet tribute to its successful Greenockian writer.

The six hours of Bryden’s reminiscences are fascinating if occasionally rambling and showed me that his career has been even more extensive than I thought. A long cultural “who’s who” is included. “Bill” Gaskill and “Tony” Richardson and “Lindsay” Anderson and “Anthony” Page at the Royal Court; Trevor Nunn and Laurence Olivier and Richard Eyre; Tennessee Williams    (“the poet of the American theatre”) and the iconoclastic Edward Bond; Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave; the composer Leonard Bernstein. However Bryden is always modest about his achievements. Several times he mentions how working at the Royal Court during the 1960s was the epitome of a Swinging London lifestyle, and he praises actors uniformly as co-operative and supportive – “if you are honest, if you are yourself, (the actors) will help you, and the great ones are the easiest to work with”.

None of Bryden’s productions enjoyed the international success of Peter Hall’s staging of Amadeus or Trevor Nunn’s Cats or Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia or Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys. However his imaginative and inspiring reworking of medieval Bible stories into The Mysteries at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio did earn regular stagings, a TV screening and a Olivier award for best director in 1985.

Bryden described The Mysteries as his Cottesloe company’s “signature” work but he staged other notable large ensemble folk music-driven shows about the lives of ordinary people of the past in Lark Rise and The World Turned Upside Down . He also specialised in staging US texts, including several Eugene O’Neill plays and the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, later staged on Broadway and filmed.

One illuminating quote he repeats came from Tony Richardson, mostly a film director rather than a stage director and responsible for famous films like Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones. Every director, said Richardson, should understand “the politics of show business and the mechanics of success” – meaning, I presume, the way that an individual director’s artistic vision must often be compromised by what financiers expect or audiences will accept. Bryden wryly adds that this definitely applies to Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, two directors from the generation after his who have succeeded both in the commercial theatre and in the cinema, and we might think about one or two high-profile names from today which could be added to such a list.

Overall, as stimulating and informative about British theatre in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as anything in my halcyon youthful days with the BBC or Channel 4.

 

 

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Men, fathers and grandfathers

 

It is not unusual that writers share similar biographies and write about similar topics. Nevertheless, Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney  are two particularly interesting examples.

They both grew up in Ayrshire although 30 years apart, and each has written fiction which draws heavily on their national and regional backgrounds and which also deals with families and politics.

McIlvanney began his career as a teacher until early book successes allowed him to write full-time. He appeared regularly in newspapers and on TV but through most of his life he might fairly have been regarded as a big fish in the small cultural pool of Scotland. In contrast, O’Hagan became a full-time writer soon after university and established himself promptly within the London literati. His brief biography to my paperback edition of his novel Our Fathers (published in 1999 when he was 31) says, “He is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and is a contributing editor to Granta”. While his name appears on the website of neither publication now, he still enjoys sufficient prestige to have been allocated a full issue of the LRB for a long article about the Grenfell Tower fire.

O’Hagan’s Our Fathers and McIlvanney’s 1975 novel Docherty each share at their centre an older powerful male character who exerts strong influence on the younger members of his family.

In Our Fathers, he is Hugh Bawn, a long-serving Labour councillor in Glasgow with a personal devotion to housing, influenced explicitly by two great real-life socialists John McLean and John Wheatley and by one fictional one, his mother Effie Bawn, supposedly a comrade activist of Mary Barbour.

 

The centre of Ayr where the New Bridge crosses the River Ayr. “Hugh (Bawn) was born in Ayr in the winter of 1913…”

 

O’Hagan seems to have based Bawn at least partly on Robert Bruce of Glasgow Corporation who produced the Bruce Report of 1945, with its wartime fondness for grand plans, tower blocks and architectural brutalism. Hugh’s powerful personality and political dedication alienates his son Robert, who shares none of his father’s ideas, suffers from alcoholism and moves away to England. However Hugh and his wife Margaret have positively influenced their grandson James who goes to live with them when his parents’ marriage break up. Much of Our Fathers deals with the adult James’ return to Ayrshire to his grandparents and to his family roots.

 

Govan Old Parish Church in 2013, looking north towards the River Clyde. “(The Bawns) moved to Govan with a bundle of blankets and the map of Cork…(They) were only in Govan a month when Britain went to war.”

 

Similar to the relationship between Hugh and Robert Bawn is the stormy relationship which William McIlvanney portrays between Tam Docherty and his three sons, especially with Angus, who believes much less than his father in community and much more on self-improvement and financial independence.

Reading Our Fathers brought back memories not just of Docherty but also of Just a Boy’s Game, the TV film written by Peter McDougall and screened by the BBC in 1979. Where O’Hagan and McIlvanney come from Ayrshire, McDougall grew up in Greenock and Just a Boy’s Game is set in the town. Here the patriarch is McQuillan: like Hugh Bawn at the end of his life, but, unlike him, a veteran gangland street fighter. McQuillan also has an adult grandson who is influenced by him. Jake McQuillan, a restless surly taciturn young man with a taste for street violence, seems to have grown up with his grandparents, estranged from his mother and with his father dead when young apparently in a street brawl. The relationship between the McQuillans is much less close than that between the Bawns: Jake’s grandfather’s dying message to him is that he has never liked him and considers himself a better fighter than Jake is.

All three of these older men are portrayed as physically strong and brave and tough. Tam Docherty and Hugh Bawn have had respectable working lives, and Hugh Bawn has often been loved, we are told, by those who have benefitted from his reforming zeal. But all three are also selfish and frightening, of fixed beliefs, men who have become addicted to the power they exert over others and who have resisted disagreement and challenge.

 

The ruined Alloway Kirk outside Ayr. ”Hugh wanted to see Auld Alloway Kirk before the light went out…The stones of the kirkyard looked bent and grey…”

 

The short road leading to the old Brig o’Doon in Alloway. The hotel on the right of the picture, formerly the Burns Monument Hotel, now the Brig O’Doon Hotel, is named the Cottars’ Arms in “Our Fathers”. “We got off near the Brig o’Doon. Hugh wanted to pee. We went into a hotel, the Cottars’ Arms, and I stood at the bar whilst the old man disappeared…”

 

McIlvanney was always regarded as a major Scottish writer from the 1970s until his death in 2015. O’Hagan, although successful, does not perhaps exert the wider cultural influence within Scotland as did McIlvanney – although that is quite probably O’Hagan’s preference, since he has usually lived and worked outside Scotland. Despite similarities between the two writers, it is intriguing to note the differences in their writing styles. As already mentioned in an earlier post, McIlvanney’s writing is heavy with description and imagery and a didactic narrative voice; O’Hagan is more light and deft, more nuanced, more musical – showing more readily associations with Joyce or Lawrence or Philip Larkin. To complete the trio, McDougall is closer in age to McIlvanney and is also much more similar to him, and, as a TV writer, aims for quotable epithets and one-liners and for imagery and scenes which draw from Hollywood western and crime genres.

I am sure my characterisations of these three Scottish writers is not fanciful. When James Bawn defends his grandfather’s political record against the angry reporter in the Ayrshire pub, O’Hagan has the latter insult James as “English” and “middle-class”. In the same pub on the same evening, he describes James’ mother’s second husband as being “civilised” and showing “a feminine manner of patience”. O’Hagan seems to have a strong awareness of the way masculinity and masculine values have changed in Scotland during his lifetime and that he may be quite different from McIlvanney and his characters and his style of writing.

But, despite growing up in a later period and having absorbed many social changes, O’Hagan is clearly still fascinated by some of the classic elements of west of Scotland life. Our Fathers draws its title from the well-known Christian prayer and also deals with Catholicism and the writing of Robert Burns. The subject and style of Our Fathers shows O’Hagan as writer and man being pulled simultaneously in two different directions, back to the past and forwards to the future. As we all always are.

 

Reference:  O’Hagan, Andrew (2000) Our Fathers   London: Faber and Faber

 

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Reaching the harbour

 

Portpatrick is a picturesque harbour town in the south-west of Scotland. In the past, as well as being a fishing port, it enjoyed a period as the ferry port to Ireland.

It features as a key location in the last section of the 1950s film Hunted, as a murderer, Chris Lloyd, played by Dirk Bogarde, escapes as far as possible from his crime in London.

The town is not actually named in the film, and we are not even told we are in Scotland: Lloyd says only that he is travelling “north” to where his brother lives. We see only a harbour crammed with fishing boats and hear Lloyd’s information that “the herring fleet’s in” so a boat might be commandeered for further escape. The film is sometimes compared to The 39 Steps , although, since Lloyd is accompanied by a young boy, I was also reminded of Kidnapped.

Seeing the film recently, I was struck how little Portpatrick has changed between its working heyday and its current life as a tourist destination.

 

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In Memoriam in wood

 

 

A profoundly tasteful and artistic World War One commemoration is the series of wooden statues of soldiers of the period carved out of tree trunks and located within the woodland of Rozelle Park in Ayr.

 

 

 

The statues were carved by Iain Chalmers, Andy Maclachlan, Peter Bowsher and Craig Steele.

 

 

 

 

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A time to meet in Ayrshire

 

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The A Frame of the former Barony coal mine in Auchinleck. “The Barony A Frame” was the title of a piece of music by Scott Lygate given its world premiere at the Cumnock Tryst this year. The coal mine closed in 1989.

 

Three years ago, a Leaf Collecting post drew similarities between contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan and the earlier Benjamin Britten.  If I had waited another year, I could have added the further similarity of their two music festivals.  

MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst is still small by the standards of other festivals, but it is significant for being a classical music weekend in an area which does not normally host such things and which will benefit greatly from any such cultural and financial investment. Cumnock, the former mining town where MacMillan grew up, and its smaller neighbour Auchinleck together boast several handsome churches and other buildings which can ably stage classical concerts, especially of sacred music. 

 

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The interior of the Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist in Cumnock is the more striking, but its sloped, wooden-framed entrance vestibule still catches the eye and hints at the varied influences of its architect William Burges.

 

I was thrilled to be at the first concert of the first festival in 2014 to see the world-famous and brilliant choir The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, in the church of St John the Evangelist, Cumnock, with its sumptuous Arts and Crafts/Gothic interior by architect William Burges. Their programme included a mix of works by the 16th century English composer Sheppard and modern compositions based on the “Stabat Mater”.

 

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This view of Cumnock Old Church displays its proportions but not really its prominence in the centre of The Square in the town.

 

Nothing in the second festival line-up enticed me like The Sixteen, but the concert at the Cumnock Old Church was still highly satisfactory. It included Fauré’s “Requiem”, some Bach and a MacMillan première, performed by the collected forces of the Hebrides Ensemble, Genesis Sixteen and the newly-formed Festival Chorus.

This year I was back at St John’s Church for a performance by the aforementioned Genesis Sixteen, the younger “apprentice” ensemble of The Sixteen, conducted by Eamonn Dougan. Their varied programme included Renaissance composers like Lassus, Bertolusi and Ramsay and 20th century names like Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton and Roderick Williams.

 

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The exterior of Trinity Church in Cumnock, where Nicola Benedetti performed as part of a trio at this year’s Cumnock Tryst, is echoed by the distinctive shop fronts next door.

 

One tiny criticism of the Cumnock Tryst is that twice in three years it has featured another Scottish classical music celebrity, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and thus might create the impression that it is too heavily reliant on two local star individuals. Another is that the use of the 18th century Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House, already a great tourism and commercial development for the area since a Prince Charles-led consortium secured its future in 2007, unbalances the shape of the Tryst as it has hosted three Sunday finale concerts with the most expensive tickets which have all sold out quickly.

 

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Dumfries House, designed by Robert Adam and his brothers in the 1750s.

 

However, I know these criticisms are not really fair.  Benedetti is the designated patron of the festival and her appearance this year was as part of a trio in a varied programme which included the contemporary music by Mark-Antony Turnage, which I would rather liked to have attended myself. And why should the fans of the splendid Dumfries House not enjoy their rare chance to hear live music in its period setting? Elsewhere throughout the weekend, the Cumnock Tryst celebrates less famous composers and musicians, plus some fine buildings in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

Next year, I should go more often than once to this valuable social and cultural enterprise.

 

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Fearties, procrastinators and forelock-tuggers

 

At the recent royal opening of the new session of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Youth Theatre gave a presentation of the great Edwin Morgan poem which was written for the Parliament’s opening in 2004. It is often tempting to compare the daily functioning of the Scottish Parliament with how Morgan imagined it.

His first lines are about the Parliament’s architecture, which certainly caused controversy well before it opened. A building of “curves and caverns” rather than of “Gothic grandeur” or of “imperial marble”, Enric Miralles’ design probably still incites comments among visitors, although I feel the two views you normally see on TV, the chamber and that internal staircase where TV addresses and interviews take place, always look bright and attractive.  I was however quite shocked to find on my single visit that the main public entrance is so much lower and darker than expected (partly because of the inevitable space for security precautions).

The debating chamber was built in a semi-circle to distinguish it from Westminster and to discourage the aggressive adversarial practices of the UK Parliament, which are so often criticised. The individual workstations do give the impression of a modern grown-up office space rather than merely an arena for rhetoric and heckling. Sitting space is more civilised and generous. Despite all this, and its smaller number of members, the Westminster habits of shouting and cheering and blaming and insults appear to have continued. Certainly it provides copy for the journalists, who are after all among its most regular visitors.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are different from those to the UK Parliament, being by a form of proportional representation. However many other features are similar to Westminster.  The elected representatives are entitled MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) which is perhaps a bit close to MPs (Members of (the UK) Parliament). The group of senior government ministers had always been called the Cabinet, so it was perhaps no surprise when the SNP later exalted these ministers to the grander Westminster title of Secretary. The weekly First Minister’s Question Time is constructed in a similar adversarial way to Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons – “it is the most popular session of Parliament and demand for tickets is extremely high”, says the Parliament website presumably without irony.

In Morgan’s poem, some of his strongest phrases are directed towards political misbehaviour. He warned against “fearties…procrastinators….forelock-tuggers”, and, especially, those prone to explaining inaction and incompetence with “the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’”. He wanted elected members to be “open and adventurous”.

Whether Morgan’s wishes have been granted or not may depend on your political opinion. I tend to feel that on many occasions members of all political parties have been guilty of cowardice, inertia and making excuses. An individual’s statements can change dramatically depending on whether he or she is in power or in opposition. The political party which is most often in power in Scottish local government tends to blame its inertia on the party which is currently in power in the Scottish Parliament which in turn tends to blame either the party of local government or the different party which is in power in the UK Parliament. Such unsatisfactory behaviour probably applies in other countries’ governments, but not all have Morgan’s stirring words to inspire them.

I remember, in the earlier years of the Scottish Parliament, in answer to some public criticism about whether this new assembly was achieving anything at all useful, the then SNP leader Alex Salmond replied to the effect that there was a difference between a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish government. Certainly, after 17 years of a Scottish Parliament and the major devolution of government functions which have involved all political parties, there is, regrettably, plenty of evidence that poverty, homelessness and low educational achievement continue in many parts of Scotland.

Is it an inevitable result of growing old that you find your elected representatives less and less satisfactory? When young you may feel angry about injustice and poverty but still suspect that perhaps those in power really are more experienced and more knowledgeable and wiser and perhaps those social problems really are as hard to fix as they say. When you’re older than most of your elected representatives you know that that is unfortunately not true and that failure is caused by incompetence, lack of effort or inappropriate political choices.

Once long ago I was attracted to the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman who was willing to give up his power as a dictator once his designated task was complete and to retire to his farm. So different from modern political careerists who are so eloquent at self-justification!

Maybe the answer is to apply the ideals of Edwin Morgan’s poem to ourselves, each in our individual social and public lives?

 

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For humility and contentment

 

Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.

 

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One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!

 

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This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”

 

Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale

 

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